How to Overcome Your Fear of Falling Behind

The secret of discovery periods, stacking skills, and accelerating your growth curve


Early in my career, I was constantly worried about falling behind. I had this idea of a growth curve in my head, but in comparison to both my peers and my imagined potential, I felt like I was falling behind. There seemed to be a perpetual gap between where I was and where I thought I should be.

growthcurve-alexjhughes

I would often tell myself, “I wish I wanted the same things as everyone else.” But what I’ve discovered is that when you provide yourself with a discovery period and allow yourself room to explore early in life, you always come out ahead. You just have to expand your perspective of time. 

The trouble is that at the start of your career, you only have a tiny corner of the map for reference. But the older you get and the more experience you gain, the more obvious this becomes. 

Those who start their careers without any level of introspection or sense of a discovery period might land a safe job, a decent signing bonus, and jump out to an early lead. But that type of growth follows a linear path which is incremental at best. Exponential growth is what you’re really after. 

“Not all who wander are lost”

For me, the first six years out of college were a discovery period. And from the outside looking in, the first twelve months probably seemed like a train wreck. 

I went from working on the set of major music videos, to considering medical school, signing up for pre-med undergraduate courses I missed the first time around, dropping out, waiting tables at a Tex-Mex restaurant, and taking a job in communications at a healthcare startup.

From there I worked my way into product management, as I discovered a gap between our sales team and our engineers. When I first assumed a product role, it was without knowing that product management was even a thing or potential career path. It just aligned with my natural interests – blending business, design, and technology. And the more I learned about product, the more I dug in. 

A few years later, I furthered that skill set by launching my own startup to connect people with local farmers markets and food sources. Alongside a talented engineer from my first job, we built FarmScout from the ground up. A few years later, it was acquired by another entrepreneur based in Portland. 

Out of all the early experiences I had, this was the most important in terms of a discovery period. If you want to accelerate your growth, determine what you’re good at and identify your gaps, try creating something from nothing. 

Around this same time, I also found my way back to writing. The formulaic essays from school had turned me away from the craft. But at 25, I decided to spend a random Saturday evening putting some thoughts on paper at The Well, a local Nashville coffee shop. I ended up writing for three hours. Before I knew it, I was there five nights each week, rekindling my love for writing – something I find meaning, clarity, and a deep sense of fulfillment in. Months later, I launched an early iteration of this blog from that exact spot. 

Growth is nonlinear

This period of six years was full of other ups and down – traveling internationally, exploring philosophy, building perspective. But around age 28 things finally came together.

By that point, I found my niche in product management, something I feel uniquely suited to do. I rediscovered writing and moved it back into a focal point of my life. I dedicated more of my time to the things and the people I cared about most. I began to stack the skills that made me, me. 

While I didn’t know it at the time, looking back, this is when my dedication to a discovery period began to pay off. My trajectory completely shifted. 

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When setting off on a discovery period, you need to understand that input rarely matches results early on. Growth is nonlinear. You have to stick with something long enough to get through the plateau before you reach a breakthrough moment. It often takes months, if not years, to see the results. That’s why it’s so important to find the things you can sustain indefinitely and stick with those.

While I don’t presume to have it all figured out, I feel like I have a stronger sense of who I am and what’s important to me because of the discovery period I was able to carve out for myself. My hope in explaining the past decade of my life is that I’m able to provide you with a real example that you can pull from and relate to. 

History is also full of similar examples. Every influential historical figure in my latest ebook, 7 Strategies to Navigate the Noise, faced similar challenges early in their life during their attempts to figure things out. From Alexander von Humboldt and Charles Darwin to Queen Elizabeth and Caterina Sforza, each person faced a discovery period where they felt like they were falling behind as they searched for something different than the lives neatly prescribed to them. But as they came to understand, what matters most is the trajectory you’re setting yourself up for. 

Those who follow a neat and orderly path might be a few steps ahead early on. But if you expand your perspective of time, it’s those who have explored and followed their natural inclinations that come out ahead. This is how you find real meaning and engagement. And both act as force multipliers. 

In the early days, you just have to remain patient and allow yourself to sit in the gray area between the two growth curves.

Focus on getting the conditions right, seek opportunities that allow you room to explore, and it’s only a matter of time before you catch your break. 

Stacking the right skills

During this discovery period, what you’re really after is determining what matters to you and how to stack the skills that set you apart. These will help move you closer to your guiding principle – what you find meaning in and your fundamental goals. 

Stacking the right skills is what allows you to hit this exponential growth. If you attempt to specialize in a single skill, it might work out if you’re a prodigy or operating in a rare field that has a neatly defined set of rules. 

But when facing the ambiguity inherent to the majority of life and work, this demands creativity and resourcefulness. If you’re only competing with a single skill at your disposal, it’s difficult to be creative and even more of a challenge to set yourself apart. 

But when you stack skills, layering one on top of the other, you begin carving out your own niche. From here you can create your own playing field and accelerate your own trajectory.

I’m not in the top ten percent when it comes to design or technology. But when I stack those alongside business, communication, storytelling, strategy, and a fierce sense of focus, that’s when I’m able to set myself apart. By wielding each of these skills, I put myself in a position to be more creative and resourceful. And this is the path towards authenticity and creating work that matters.

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Design
Business
Storytelling
Communication
Strategy
Focus

The same lesson holds true for something like machine learning (ML). It’s incredibly difficult to establish yourself at the top of that field in its purest form. But if you stack skills in music composition, programming, analytics, and ML, it’s a rare group of people whose natural interests align and are able to combine those skills. And suddenly instead of competing against 50,000 industry experts, there are only 20 people who even remotely overlap.

Learning which skills to stack is about coming into your own. What makes you unique? What are your natural inclinations? What comes easy to you that other people find difficult or impossible? What can you sustain indefinitely? A discovery period allows you to begin uncovering answers to these questions. 

Law of the hammer

The added benefit of stacking skills is that you’re able to begin mastering a multidisciplinary approach. This is how you outthink and outmaneuver people. And it helps guard you from becoming trapped in a one-track mindset where you attempt to apply a single approach to every problem you face.

When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. A multidisciplinary approach is the antithesis of the law of the hammer. It helps you avoid the cognitive bias that is the over-reliance on a single model. 

The more mental models you possess, the stronger your cognitive ability, and the greater your capacity to grow. Remember, when you only have a single model to work with, growth is often incremental at best.

If machine learning is the only interest and skill you’ve developed, chances are that every problem you face is going to look like an ML problem. But when you’ve armed yourself with a multidisciplinary approach and you’ve stacked the skills that set you apart, you can see problems and opportunities for what they are. From here, you’re able to determine a more effective course of action.

Be loyal to the best opportunities for growth

Early in your career, the most important thing you can look for is opportunities that allow you room to explore.

If you’re in technology, this could mean working somewhere that provides exposure to different programming languages, frameworks, technologies, and products. Or it might mean seeking out an opportunity on a diverse, cross-functional team that provides you with exposure to a range of disciplines and perspectives. 

Whatever you do and wherever you are, remain loyal to the best opportunities for growth. 

Don’t allow yourself to get locked into an isolated career early on. It might seem like a head start for the first few years, but you’ll pay dearly later on in your own growth and sense of engagement. Prioritizing short-term gratification over learning and growth is how you end up in a dead-end career with regrets.

Give yourself time to figure yourself out. Allow yourself room to explore. Prioritize the places and people who appreciate this need. 

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By creating space and pursuing opportunities that reward a discovery period, you can start figuring out how to stack the skills that set you apart. This is how you develop yourself, accelerate your own growth, and avoid the traps that most people find themselves lured into. 

Channel what makes you, you. With this mindset and room to explore, you’ll run laps around your younger self and make it impossible for others to keep pace. By committing to the long game, you unlock the power of compound interest and exponential growth. And this is how you accelerate your trajectory and create real meaning. 

Self-Sufficiency: The Ultimate Stoic Virtue

Above all else, the Stoics were masters at assigning things their proper value. The great Stoic philosophers knew the importance of identifying what was within their control, what was beyond, and what fell in-between. And they maintained an unwavering sense of focus on the things within their realm of control.

Nowhere is this more evident than the core Stoic virtues of wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation. But at the foundation of this Stoic range of virtue and your sphere of influence sits one underlying principle that ties it altogether – self-sufficiency. From self-sufficiency stems all other virtues.

It’s a dangerous game to tie your sense of meaning and wellbeing to someone or something else. When you fixate on things beyond your control, you become restricted, dependent, and weak. And you introduce dependencies that can drop you into a state of anxiety, envy, or despair without warning.

But when you guard your self-sufficiency above all else and focus more attention on what’s within your sphere of control, you gain flexibility, independence, and strength.

If a person gave away your body to some passerby, you’d be furious. Yet you hand over your mind to anyone who comes along, so they may abuse you, leaving it disturbed and troubled – have you no shame in that?
— Epictetus

Self-sufficiency is about focusing more of your time and energy on the things you can actually have an impact on. And it demands that you assume responsibility for those things.

There are those who argue against self-sufficiency as if it’s the enemy of progress. And there’s an element of truth to this. Since we don’t all have to worry about harvesting our own food, sewing our own clothes, or building our own tools, we can get further up on the hierarchy needs. We can trade chores and focus on what we find meaning in. This is progress.

But I mean self-sufficiency less in terms of technology, and more in terms of the reliance on others for the internal quality of your life and your wellbeing. Assuming you’re healthy, the less reliant you are on others to provide the things that only you’re able to give yourself – meaning, virtue, character, integrity – the greater your capacity to give something back to the world.

And while it might fly in the face of progress, voluntary hardship is an important tool for self-sufficiency. Sometimes you have to do the work, suffer a little, and take the long way home. This is a training ground for your mind. It builds willpower and resilience.

As wood is to the carpenter, bronze to the sculptor, so our own lives are the proper material in the art of living.
— Epictetus

Philosophy is about the art of living. By focusing on developing yourself first, you’re able to improve yourself as a human being. And in doing so, you increase your capacity to give and amplify the impact you’re able to have. But so many people want to give advice without first figuring out their own lives and accepting responsibility for themselves.

It’s easier to focus on other people’s problems – the latest gossip, family drama, or outrage featured in today’s news – rather than facing your own uncomfortable truths. Distractions are the crutch we use to avoid facing ourselves.

Self-sufficiency is about recognizing that life is a single player game. The only person you can change is you. It might seem counterintuitive, but if you start here you’re able to increase your capacity to make a difference in other people’s lives.

By becoming less dependent on others for your every need, you’re able to create more than you take. And you provide yourself with more opportunities to demonstrate virtues like wisdom, compassion, and courage.

There are obvious exceptions when it comes to the sick or elderly. But if you’re a provider for someone else and you fail to establish a degree of self-sufficiency, you’ll always have a self-imposed limit on what you’re able to provide. To make up for the discrepancy, you’re likely taking from other people in your life to help fuel that. And if you’re lucky, the world breaks even in the exchange.

Your capacity to give without expecting something in return is directly tied to your degree of self-sufficiency.

By requiring reciprocity for an act of kindness, you negate its impact. With a stronger sense of self-sufficiency, you eliminate the ego-driven need for anything in return. And this is how you flip the script and create a net positive in the world.

In the pursuit of self-sufficiency you increase your capacity to contribute in every other facet of your life. It’s foundational to giving more than you take. And that’s what the world needs. More people giving back to the world. More people taking risks to live at their best. More people with a deeper well of kindness for the people around them.

But it all starts with self-sufficiency. With this foundation in place, the rest of your virtues can grow without limit.

The question, then, is how to begin honing your own self-sufficiency. Here are five first steps to help push you in the right direction.

1. Assign things their proper value

Self-sufficiency begins with identifying what’s within your control, what’s beyond, and what falls in-between. By going through this exercise, you can map out and assign things their proper value. What’s within your control should take precedence, in terms of both time and energy. After all, this is where you can have the largest measurable impact.

2. Create room for reflection

This also requires creating room for reflection each day. It doesn’t matter if it’s a meditation practice in the morning, taking a walk after lunch, or journaling in the evening. What matters is that you create space to process and think for yourself. This helps guard you from being pulled into races that you’re not willing to run. 

As humans we’re highly impressionable. Opportunities for reflection will help you discover what’s meaningful to you and avoid absorbing someone else’s guiding principle as your own. And this is perhaps the most difficult skill of all – sorting through the noise and determining what’s your own.

3. Practice voluntary hardship

In a world of mental hacks and shortcuts, there’s no substitute for discipline and resilience. To develop this, look for occasional opportunities to remove automation and assistance. These can act as barriers to your own abilities and your natural filter for priorities.

This might mean cooking tonight instead of ordering out or going for a run instead of watching another sporting event. The ability to embrace a little bit of discomfort goes a long way when it comes to self-sufficiency. If you want to create something meaningful and transform yourself, it rarely comes through the path of least resistance. 

4. Master a multidisciplinary approach

As you push yourself, you create more opportunities to pursue a wealth of experience across disciplines and dial in a multidisciplinary strategy. This begins with fueling your natural curiosity, drawing connections between your wide-ranging interests, and exploring new ways to stack the skills that set you apart. 

From here you can assess things from new angles, identify your gaps, and survey the range of available options. It also guards you from false patterns and foolish attempts to apply a single model to every problem you face. If you only have a narrow range of mental models available when you negotiate the challenges inherent to life, self-sufficiency is impossible. You need multiple weapons if you want to outthink and outmaneuver obstacles.

5. Embrace the silence

But self-sufficiency doesn’t mean you need to have an opinion about everything. It’s more about the ability to subsist without validation. If you’re focused on the right things, for the right reasons, you won’t need external recognition each step of the way. Everyday conversations are a good place to begin practicing this. 

Another way to practice this is when you experience something memorable – a landscape that humbles you or a concert that inspires you. Allow that to be enough. Avoid the temptation to reach for Instagram. Not everyone needs to know every minute detail of your life. The meaning you find in that moment is worth far more than the short-term high that comes from someone mindlessly scrolling through their feed and tapping your post.

“These are the characteristics of the rational soul: self-awareness, self-examination, and self-determination. It reaps its own harvest…It succeeds in its own purpose…”
— Marcus Aurelius

Self-sufficiency doesn’t mean you need to live off the grid. You can and should enjoy the conveniences of modern life. But you should also assume responsibility for your personal wellbeing.

Living well is about eliminating internal dependencies. No one can tell you what’s meaningful to you, what your guiding principles should be, or what the right decision is each step of the way. You have to determine this yourself.

If you want to make a measurable difference in the world, it starts with assuming responsibility for yourself. This is perhaps the most important lesson the Stoics had to offer. You can’t create anything meaningful without first taking responsibility and transforming yourself.

If you’re a well-rounded human being, you can give more back to the world and the people around you. It starts and ends with you.

*This article was originally featured on Daily Stoic.

The 5 Best Books to Sharpen Your Strategic Mind

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Ever wonder if you’re focused on the right things? This fear defined my first five years out of college. I was mainly reacting to the things happening around me, bouncing from one distraction to the next. I tried to be purposeful but I had no sense of direction and failed to grasp the nuance of the long game. In other words, I failed to recognize the importance of strategy. 

At their core, strategies are the frameworks you stack to help advance your principles, move you closer to your goals, and realize your aspirations. Strategies sit above tactics, but below guiding principles. They pave the way forward and help create momentum.

A strong strategy helps to direct your focus and anticipate the obstacles or adversaries standing in the way. This requires long-term thinking – an ability so see multiple moves ahead and an understanding of the interconnected whole. But it’s also about knowing what you’re working towards and what’s within your control. 

This story will be familiar to those who have read my new ebook, 7 Strategies to Navigate the Noise. It’s all about connecting your guiding principles with your day-to-day. Life gets easier when you develop a stronger sense of strategy and are able to take thoughtful action. 

Over the past ten years, I’ve faced this question day in and day out, pouring over hundreds of books in an attempt to figure it out. In 7 Strategies to Navigate the Noise, I recommend twenty-two different books to improve your strategic mind. I’ve narrowed that list to the five most influential books on strategy to get you started.

Each book offers something of its own and was a major influence in helping me develop a stronger sense of strategy and self-sufficiency. If you’re struggling to determine whether or not you’re focused on the right things or need help sharpening your strategic mind, these books should provide a solid starting place.

1) The Laws of Human Nature by Robert Greene

Robert Greene is a master strategist in his own right and perhaps the best of our generation. This book is the culmination of his lifetime of work on power, influence, and mastery. It’s an instructive guide to human nature based on historical accounts and evidence, rather than a particular viewpoint or moral judgment. 

As Greene, emphasizes throughout the book, a deep understanding of human nature is advantageous for countless reasons. It helps you grow into a strategic observer, become a better judge of character, outthink malicious people, develop greater empathy, and realize your potential.

True to form, Greene pulls stories from both sides throughout history – those who have succeeded and those who have failed in spectacular fashion. It’s an incredible resource if you want to hone your strategic mind and it will pay immediate dividends in your own life, no matter your position. 

2) The Tigress of Forlì by Elizabeth Lev

The biography of Renaissance Italy’s most courageous countess, Caterina Sforza. Her tale is one of clever strategy, boldness, and determination. Sforza’s entire life reads like a storybook, as she fights off her husband’s assassins, the French Army, and Cesare Borgia. 

Sforza is an archetype of a dimensional thinker who was able to consider second and third-order consequences at every pivotal moment. And this was how she fought her way through life, outthinking and outmaneuvering every adversary and obstacle she came across. 

Throughout her life, powerful men viewed her as a pawn on the chessboard of Italian politics. They doubted her ability to rule and refused to take her seriously. She would prove this to be foolish, time and time again. It’s a fascinating and inspiring biography one of history’s most underrated strategic leaders. 

3) Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

A cornerstone of Stoic philosophy. At its core, it’s about the art of living. This is the true value of practical, functional philosophy. And there’s no better starting place than Marcus Aurelius. 

If you want to be more strategic, you need a bedrock of principles that you can call upon at any moment. You must also have a strong understanding of your sphere of influence – what’s within your control, what’s beyond, and what falls in-between. Stoic philosophy and the frameworks emphasized in Meditations are one of the best places you can start. 

4) Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing

A brilliant tale of survival that documents Sir Ernest Shackleton’s failed voyage to cross the Antarctic. Shackleton was a compelling, larger-than-life figure who offered lessons in leadership and strategy at each turn.

The book also contains one of my favorite passages. And it speaks directly to strategy and thoughtful action: “Whatever his mood – whether it was gay and breezy, or dark with rage – he had one pervading characteristic: he was purposeful.” If you want to sharpen your strategic mind, that’s what you’re after. Every action should have intention.

Shackleton’s most profound lessons are revealed in his ability to transcend the fundamentals and shift strategies as the situation required. There are few men who faced more dire circumstances than Shackleton and his crew, and who survived without any casualties. While you can’t separate luck, there was a strong level of strategy required to come out on the other side. 

5) Skin in the Game by Nassim Taleb

One of the great things about Taleb is that he challenges standard conventions and long-held beliefs about a range of topics. As a result, you’re guaranteed to walk away with a new perspective. Here he picks apart the way we think about uncertainty, symmetry, risk-sharing, and rationality in complex systems.

In terms of strategy, Taleb emphasizes the importance of thinking in high dimensions and evolving beyond the shallow. He also digs into how acting by removing is more powerful and less error-prone than acting by addition. This has implications in terms of unnecessary complexity in both our lives and how we think about strategy.

But the core of the book focuses on ethics and morality. Skin in the Game is about putting yourself out there and taking risks of your own. It’s immoral to keep the upside and transfer the downside to others. Besides, it’s impossible to understand the world and develop your own strategic abilities without putting yourself out there and taking risks of your own. 

The best strategic thinkers have grown from the chaos they’ve faced and developed resilience. Strategy isn’t about accruing power and sitting back while others take the risk. It’s about using long-term thinking to improve your position and build your capacity to give more back to the world. At its core, strategy is about taking calculated risks for the things you care about most – thoughtful action. 


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How I Used Improv as a Growth Hack to Become a Better Public Speaker

A few months ago I shadowed an acting class focused on scene work. And you might be wondering what the hell I was doing. I thought the same thing. I’m not an actor. I have zero natural talent. And the last acting experience I had was in the prestigious role of a truffula tree in a first-grade rendition of The Lorax. 

My intent, besides self-induced humiliation, was to discover a nontraditional approach to help improve my public speaking skills. I considered standard business speaking courses and groups like Toastmasters, but I felt like those were too formulaic and lacked room for individuality. What I needed practice with was being horribly uncomfortable in front of people and expressing myself. 

The scene-study acting class didn’t stick for me. It was more focused on developing the craft, getting comfortable in front of the camera, and immersion into different characters. I wanted to be more comfortable letting loose and being myself. But it led me to test another angle, improvisation. So I found a local comedy club and signed up for an eight-week beginner’s class.

When I walked into the class, I had no idea what I was getting into. I struggle with forced interaction and workshop-type events. I was expecting the three-hour class to drag by. But time flew by and it turned out to be one of the most important experiences I’ve had this year. 

The first class started with “dancing to yes.” It’s a warm-up exercise where one person starts dancing in the middle of a circle (don’t worry, there’s music) and the rest of the group mirrors their dance moves. Once the person in the middle is ready to move out, they make eye contact with someone else, dance over to them, and jump up at the same time to yell “YES!” before that person takes over. It’s just as traumatizing as it sounds. 

The rest of the class followed a series of exercises around active listening, mirroring body language, committing to your first idea, building on other people’s ideas, and getting comfortable on stage. Each offered important lessons in their own way. And as the weeks progressed we dug into more specifics of the craft. But the bulk of the benefit, for me, was during warmups – a point of emphasis in earlier classes. 

While I’m still improving two months later, I can say I’m a more confident, comfortable public speaker for having taken an introductory improv course. This experience provided an opportunity for accelerated growth that I would have been hard-pressed to find anywhere else. Here are the key lessons I uncovered along the way.

Lesson 1) Embrace your inner dumbass

The thing about improv is that it’s so uncomfortable it’s almost unbearable. But at that point you have to make a decision to either walk out or embrace the fact that you’re going to look like a dumbass and there’s no way around it. 

If you’re too worried about how you look on stage, you’ll freeze up and it’s impossible to cope. You might as well accept it and do your best. Besides, if you can get on stage and play make-believe with other adults, you can do anything on stage – whether a presentation at work or a TED Talk. The only thing more challenging is likely standup. 

Consider how much easier presentations or speeches become when you’re talking about something you actually know, as opposed to making up material on the spot.

But even if you’re a subject matter expert, improv will teach you to let go of your quest for perfection. It’s about trusting yourself and doing your best given the circumstances and the person you are at this moment in time. Besides, imperfection is the very thing that defines live performances.

Most of the time, attempts at perfection just end up fueling your nerves. And it’s impossible to perform your best or encourage yourself to take new risks if you’re a nervous wreck. A more effective, albeit counterintuitive, approach is to tell yourself “who cares” before taking the leap. Improv is a useful practice ground to immerse yourself in this mindset.

The “who-cares” mindset isn’t about apathy, it’s about a relaxed state of concentration. It’s a strangely empowering self-talk that helps navigate fears of judgment, failure, or general anxiety about drawing attention to yourself. It helps lower the stakes before taking a new risk.

Improv will teach you to let go and trust yourself. Once you’re on stage, there’s no other option. The same goes for presentations. Quiet your nerves by accepting the inevitable imperfections.

Lesson 2) Get out of your own head

If you want to be successful in improv, you have to focus the entirety of your attention outside of yourself. One of the best things about improv is that it forces you out of your own head. This is another powerful tool for navigating stage fright.

In everyday encounters, you can predict with relative accuracy which direction most conversations are heading. But this doesn’t work in improv. You can’t rely on cognitive patterns and only listen with part of your attention because you can’t possibly predict the crazy shit that someone is going to say next. 

The unpredictability inherent to improv demands that you listen with every ounce of energy you have. Otherwise you’ll fall on your face and make life miserable for the person next to you. If nothing else, improv will train you to be a better active listener. 

While it might sound counterintuitive, by projecting more attention outside of yourself, you’re able to avoid overthinking and settle in. If I fixate on my internal state (nerves), I only make matters worse. And this is one of the most important concepts that translates from improv to public speaking. 

When leading discussions, I channel more energy outside of myself to concentrate on really understanding what other people are saying. When giving presentations I focus on the expressions and non-verbals of individuals in the audience. These are the tactics I use to the avoid internal spirals that come from projecting too far ahead and becoming tangled in my own thoughts. 

Lesson 3) Create a bias towards action

In my day-to-day, whether writing a new article or building products, the behaviors that create the greatest ROI are reflection and calculated action. Due to the nature of the work I gravitate towards, I rarely get an opportunity to cut loose and do more impulsive activities that improv encourages. 

The discomfort you face in improv forces you to use new paths and explore new connections that have grown rusty or never been used. It rattles your routine and forces you into unfamiliar situations. It’s a far cry from the structured routine of everyday life. And that’s what makes it so beneficial for public speaking – both are unfamiliar environments that you don’t face on a regular basis. 

Improv won’t guarantee you’ll stop being nervous on stage. I doubt this ever goes away. But it does help build a greater familiarity with that feeling. It creates a bias towards immediate action so you’re able to overcome nerves and jump in anyway.

This also translates to the content of your presentation. Rather than sitting back and providing a backstory, improv teaches you to dive straight into the action. That means not just talking about the fire that started at the barn across town, but instead detailing what it was like to be in that barn or holding the firehose trying to put out the flames.

Start in the middle. People crave compelling stories. Don’t bore them with the trivial details that aren’t relevant to your core message. Improv helps train this muscle. But it also translates to how your approach speaking engagements – action first.

There’s a certain beauty in making yourself that vulnerable in extreme moments of discomfort. This mindset creates a shift in how you view presentations or public speaking. It’s about being authentic and embracing the imperfections in your delivery. It’s far more effective to give a presentation with a few stumbles that’s honest and real, rather than give something polished that never gets below surface level.

I recently fueled all these lessons into a presentation I gave at Georgia Tech to students in the College of Computing. And it was the best presentation I’ve ever given. It wasn’t perfect and I still have quite a few things to practice. But it was real. I let go, focused on the students, and jumped into stories to illustrate ideas that would resonate with that audience.

During improv a few weeks earlier, I was acting like a grizzly bear trying to track down a toucan than escaped from the zoo. I reminded myself of this experience before getting in front of the room. I knew if I could do that, I could talk about the products I’m building at work and the key lessons I’ve learned in my own career. These were things I actually knew and believed in. 

If you want to get better at crafting logical arguments, try Toastmasters or a public speaking course. But if you want practice facing uncomfortable situations on stage and channeling your individuality, improv is the way to go. It will help accelerate your own skills and provide an unconventional angle that few consider. 

15 Lessons I Learned Before Turning 31

31 feels slightly less monumental than 30. Last year, I reflected on the most important lessons learned over the course of my 20s. But there are no off-years in life. If you’re doing it right, each one offers new experiences and opportunities to grow.

Every year I create checkpoints to consider lessons learned, challenges I’ve faced, and progress I’ve made. Birthdays are one of those triggers to step back and administer a healthy dose of perspective. 

I’ve found that the true test of how much I’ve learned in the previous year is considering myself at that same point in time 365 days ago. If I laugh at how stupid I was, that’s a good sign. Investor, Ray Dalio, shares a similar sentiment, “It seems to me that if you look back on yourself a year ago and aren't shocked by how stupid you were, you haven't learned much.”

The years I’ve been able to look back and contemplate how much I’ve learned, despite laughing at the expense of my younger self, have been the most rewarding.

This year was an important one for me. Although it’s not as big of a milestone as 30, this year was full of little victories, failures, and lessons. I’ve learned as much as I ever have in a single year. Here are some of the most important lessons that have stuck with me.

1) What matters most is the ability to bounce back

There will be times you fail to rise to the occasion. What matters most is the ability to bounce back. It’s one of the most critical skills you can build in life.

I’ve learned this time and time again in my career. You can’t expect perfect conditions each step of the way. Things are going to break, you’re going to run into ignorant people, and there will be times that you face an onslaught of obstacles with no end in sight. What matters is that you find a way to come back with a fresh perspective each day, ready to try again. 

The best teams I know embrace imperfections beyond their control and contribute something meaningful anyway. The worst teams self-destruct because they’re too busy obsessing over inconveniences. 

2) Experiences can still surprise you

I’ve been fortunate enough to have traveled to dozens of beautiful places across the world. I believe the more you travel, the more perspective you build – an invaluable gift in life. But the catch is that the more you travel, the more you seem to lose the novelty of first-time experiences. 

I will never have the same feeling that I did the first time I went dogsledding in the arctic circle, kayaking in the Milford Sound, or camping in the Vietnamese jungle inside Hang En cave.

But this year, I went to South Africa and was surprised to discover that elusive feeling in the raw experience of a safari and in the bliss of the beautiful countryside of Babylonstoren, one of the oldest Cape Dutch farms. If you keep an open mind and maintain an appreciation for life in all its forms, experiences will never cease to amaze you.

3) Convenience is worth paying for

Five years ago, “frugal” would have been one of the best adjectives to describe me. Over the past few years I’ve let that go in favor of convenience. And this comes from learning to value my time properly. 

My routine for years has been to write at a coffee shop on Saturday afternoons. But I would always cut that short to head across town to pick up groceries, an absolute nightmare on weekends. This year, instead of interrupting myself during this time, I’ve started using a grocery delivery service. 

On average, I save two hours of uninterrupted focus time. And it only costs me five extra dollars. At a certain point, you have to learn that time is the most valuable thing you have. 

4) Reversibility matters more than certainty in your decisions 

Time is far more valuable than a marginally better solution. To help make faster decisions, I’ve started asking myself, “How reversible is this decision?” If it’s easily reversible, I make it right there. Assessing decisions based on reversibility, rather than certainty of the potential outcome, has improved my decision making significantly. 

Slow, deliberate decision-making can be a significant advantage in avoiding massive mistakes. But the reality is that most decisions you make on a daily basis aren’t permanent in nature. There’s a time and place to use this level of deep thought and consideration. Not when it comes to picking a restaurant for dinner or testing a new layout for the landing page of your website. 

5) Success doesn’t come from preventing things from falling through the cracks

This is about building a systems mentality. In other words, developing the ability to step back and consider the interconnected whole – the structures, patterns, and cycles – instead of being blinded by a single event or moment in time. This frees you to focus your limited time and energy on what matters most. Success doesn’t come from being better at preventing things from falling through the cracks. It comes from knowing what to let fall through. 

You can identify those who have failed to build a systems mentality by how overwhelmed they get by minutiae – especially when the stakes are at their highest. They become fixated on insignificant things, gripping for control in their foolish quest for perfection. They’re unable to let the little things go.

6) Four things separate you from the top of your field

When I started my career in product, those above me seemed almost lightyears ahead in terms of their intelligence and abilities. I wouldn’t put myself anywhere close to the same category. But the more interactions I have with executives and senior leaders, the more I’m convinced that they aren’t infinitely smarter. The real difference is in their risk-taking, network, growth mindset, and a healthy dose of luck. It’s a good reminder that you’re not that far off. 

7) Don’t get pulled into races that you’re not willing to run

If I don’t create room for reflection, I often find myself getting pulled into other people’s aspirations and playing stupid games for stupid prizes – struggling to position myself on the corporate ladder, equating meetings with productivity, or seeking validation through arbitrary certifications and recognition. 

This is one of the most difficult skills to develop, sorting through the noise and determining what’s your own. As a human being, you are highly impressionable. This is great when it comes to social cohesion, but terrible when it comes to realizing your own aspirations. It’s okay if you don’t want the same things as everyone else. Just make sure you aren’t getting pulled into races that you’re not willing to run.

8) People are amazingly consistent in their behaviors

Another way of saying this is that everyone gets what’s coming to them – for better or worse. It’s just a matter of time. Habits and behaviors projected over the course of years dictate future conditions and outcomes. The trouble is that when you’re young and could use this advice the most, your perspective of time is too shallow to really grasp the lesson.

I see examples of talented, hardworking people catching breaks every month. I also see examples of grown adults clinging to the same identity they had in college who are paying dearly for short-sighted decisions in their careers, health, and relationships.

Use this as motivation to focus on getting the conditions right, developing better habits, and playing the long game. With this mindset, it’s just a matter of time before you start catching breaks. 

9) Compound interest from reading is no joke

After five years of reading 50+ nonfiction books each year, it’s only within the past few months that I’ve felt like I’ve been able to make seamless connections and pull relevant stories on demand. Once you form these connections, you propel yourself forward with a wealth of vicarious experience. 

This is critical to so many areas of life – mastering a multidisciplinary approach, identifying your guiding principles, outthinking misguided people. Without reading, you have to learn this all from direct experience. But books provide you with lifetimes of experience and perspective that you can call upon at will. 

10) Stories > instructions

Stop telling people what to do. Unless you’re running a laboratory, people don’t give a shit about instructions. Stories are the best way to communicate. If you let people interpret things for themselves, you get better results. Especially in fields that demand creative thinking. 

Of course, there are obvious exceptions and integrity matters. But you see the power of this in presentations. Speakers who use stories are able to capture the imagination of their audience. That’s what resonates with people. The same thing goes for brainstorming, design sprints, whiteboarding, and every meeting you have.

Everyone craves stories because that’s how we make sense of the world and piece together our own ideas.

11) Improv makes you a better human

I signed up for improv classes to help improve my public speaking skills. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I wanted to take a non-traditional approach. Fortunately, this has been one of the most profound experiences of my entire year. There are so many positive takeaways and important lessons that I’m planning to write a full article on the experience. 

The short version is that improv will get you out of your own head, train you to be a better listener, and wreck your comfort zone. 

If you aren’t listening with every ounce of your being, you will fail. You can’t fall back on normal cognitive patterns and predictions that you use in everyday conversations. And the constant discomfort during class forces you to embrace and accept the fact that you’re going to look like a dumbass on stage. There’s no way around it. It’s an empowering realization. I’ve since given up my attempts at perfection during presentations, which has helped me relax and improve my delivery.

12) Routine is essential to creativity

The more automatic my habits and routine become, the more energy I can pour into being creative. Ever since I carved out dedicated time and space for writing, my craft has improved significantly. Most mornings I start writing at 6:30 AM. Since I’ve built this habit over years, when I sit down at my desk in the morning I’m able to shift into a creative mindset without a colossal effort.

I often think of this quote from Gustav Flaubert, “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” With that being said, there is a golden mean. I have to challenge this routine on occasion to make sure it’s still working for me and I’m not becoming too rigid in my approach.

13) Drawdown periods matter

I’m excited to release my first e-book next month. But it was no small undertaking. It required five months of sustained effort. Before jumping off I had to make room for a drawdown period where I was able to prepare, rest, and reflect before starting. I knew I would need every ounce of energy I had if I wanted to get my thinking clean and bring the best version of the idea to life. 

This drawdown period was essential in helping me create a buffer where I was able to piece together and discover my own thoughts on the subject. It was an escape from being bombarded by influences and outside noise. The bigger the project, the more important it has been for me to settle my mind leading up to it. 

14) Time your vacations to avoid burnout

Over the past few years, I’ve kept track of when I start to feel like I'm burning out in a given year. And I've noticed it always occurs around the same time. So this year, I planned vacations and weekend getaways to avoid falling into the same pattern – February, May, July, August, and November.

As ridiculous as it sounds, one of my New Year’s resolutions was to take five vacations. It was a way to self enforce breaks when I would otherwise attempt to be a hero and power through things. This has made a huge difference in my wellbeing, the quality of my work, and overcoming the burnout I’ve faced in recent years. 

15) Purpose starts with meaning

Over the past year, I’ve had conversations with many people struggling with purpose. I love being able to share these deep conversations and I sympathize. That was the first ten years of my adult life – forever tiptoeing on the edge of an existential crisis. Some days I still wonder what the hell I’m doing. Purpose is such an overwhelming thing. 

But what I’ve learned, and what I try to share in these conversations, is that purpose is just the series of pieces you find meaning in. Look for where you find meaning in your day to day. By doing more of those things, you move purpose within reach. And if the quest for purpose ever becomes too much, settle for doing meaningful things instead. 

What’s Really Behind Our Obsession with Failure

In recent years, there’s been a growing obsession with failure. The “fail fast, fail often” mentality is polarizing. Many take it at face value and use it to romanticize their own failures. Others reject this as bad advice that’s intended only to soothe us in our shortcomings.

But regardless of where you stand, there remains an important lesson at the core of this mindset. And it’s not about failure, it’s about reach. If you’re willing to risk failure, you’re able to take more chances and reach further beyond your current ability level.

The goal is never failure itself. And that’s what most people get wrong. The goal is extending your reach and accelerating growth. This requires pursuing opportunities where failure is a potential outcome. Progress is difficult to come by when you limit yourself to situations where success and participation trophies are guaranteed outcomes.

There are two kinds of failure. The first comes from never trying out your ideas because you are afraid, or because you are waiting for the perfect time. This kind of failure you can never learn from, and such timidity will destroy you. The second kind comes from a bold and venturesome spirit. If you fail in this way, the hit that you take to your reputation is greatly outweighed by what you learn.
— Robert Greene

Avoiding contests that you’re not capable of winning makes sense in high-stakes situations. You want to eliminate risk and play the odds. But in modern life, success is rarely a matter of life and death. Most decisions aren’t catastrophic or irreversible.

It’s still important to choose the right opportunities where you have a competitive advantage in terms of your natural abilities or interests. But if you want to accelerate growth in these areas, you have to seek out challenges that test your limits and push you to the brink of your ability level. 

Aiming 4% beyond your current abilities

Habit expert and best-selling author, James Clear, suggests a good rule of thumb is to aim 4% beyond your current ability level. This is where deliberate practice takes place and you’re able to achieve a state of flow. 

Don’t get too hung up on the exact percentage, this is just a system to calculate risk and accelerate growth. If you’re aiming 4% beyond your current ability level, failure is a potential outcome. But it’s not the only available outcome – success is still within reach. This allows you to take advantage of inflection points and make bigger leaps – in your career, your art, or personal qualities you’re focused on improving. 

Ramit Sethi, best-selling finance author, has a similar approach where he keeps a tag in Gmail for “failures” and aims to reach four failures each month. But that doesn’t mean he’s taking stupid risks. He’s making calculated moves to extend his reach and give himself a chance. Sethi knows failure is a natural part of growing and trying new things. This mindset is key to the sustained growth of his business, helping him reach 400,000 newsletter subscribers and launch dozens of successful (and failed) products. 

Discovering the terrain

Both success and failure offer an equal sense of the terrain. Each reveals what to do more of, less of, and which direction might be worth exploring. When you’re just starting out, the map is obscured with certain parts missing. With each success and each failure, you learn a little more and reveal another piece of the map.

The only way to win is to learn faster than everyone else.
— Wade Shearer

Knowing what not to do can be just as powerful as knowing what to do. If you can avoid repeating small mistakes more than once, and avoid the colossal ones altogether, you can bring the full picture into focus, faster. Reflection on your own experiences, paired with vicarious learning (e.g., books or podcasts), helps commit experience into knowledge, shedding light on new corners of the map.

Learning fast, learning often

The driving force behind this fascination with failure is learning, which leads to growth. “Learn fast, learn often” is a more accurate but less buzzworthy rallying cry. Failure is just a mask that learning wears on occasion. 

Learning is what you’re really after. Figuring out what works, what doesn’t, and piecing together your understanding of life. With this you can build momentum in the areas you’ve prioritized. 

The “fail fast” mentality is about making calculated efforts to push your limits. But failure itself is not the goal. The goal is to push your limits, extend your reach, and develop yourself. Growth requires putting yourself in challenging situations that test your abilities. 

If nothing else, the romanticized advice surrounding failure should serve as a reminder that you’re the one who has to go out and live. Books, podcasts, and articles can provide you with strategies, systems, and kindred souls. But at the end of the day, if you want to grow, you have to test these ideas for yourself, risk failure, and fine-tune your own strategy along the way.

The Art of Drawdown Periods

Inspiration is important. Your influences matter. But you also need time to process, reflect, and create your own connections before jumping into your next project. Whether that’s a book, startup, or scientific theory, the lesson holds true for artists, entrepreneurs, and scientists, alike.

Best-selling author, Ryan Holiday, refers to these as “drawdown periods.” In the months leading up to writing a new book, Holiday guards himself against new information with the potential to clutter this mind. Instead, he seeks a period of stillness where he’s able to distill information and settle his mind before jumping off and creating something new.

“For one of my books I gave myself a January 1 start date for the writing. Two months before, in November, I entered my drawdown period. No more reading or rereading. Just thinking. Long walks. Resting. Preparing.”
— Ryan Holiday

The danger of neglecting a drawdown period is failing to create a buffer where you’re able to discover and piece together your own thoughts on the subject. Instead, you’re just regurgitating the latest idea or concept you’ve heard, as if it’s your own. To be fair, this is human nature — we’re highly impressionable, social beings.

But creating a little more distance is a good thing. It provides additional perspective that you’re able to bring back to your work. Without this, you’re just facing an onslaught of information and distraction which can be difficult to make sense of.

Is your idea worth pursuing?

Above everything else, drawdown periods help inform whether or not an idea’s worth pursuing. The original source of “drawdown periods” — where Holiday borrowed the concept from — was military strategist, John Boyd. After he encountered a breakthrough or exciting new idea, he would spend weeks examining it, assessing its originality, and stress-testing it for problems. If it survived this period, he knew it was worth investing in.

The greater the endeavor, the more vital a drawdown period becomes. It’s important to act when inspiration strikes as it relates to the little things — an article, a small experiment, a new tactic. But the mountains — new books, startups, theories — are worth reflecting on before jumping in.

This helps create a natural filter for the things you’re not completely invested in. If the idea still resonates with you tomorrow, next week, next month, you might be on to something.

Tapering before the race

Far from killing inspiration, drawdown periods promote creativity. They allow you to find your voice and the guiding principle behind your next project. Without this, it’s impossible to sort through what’s your own.

Drawdown periods are the calm before the storm. If you set off scrambling without first setting your feet, you’re putting yourself behind from the start. While everyone loses their way at some point, it’s important to have a sense of your guiding principle — this initial footing — that you can return to along the way. And the best way to establish an early version of your guiding principle is by creating room to reflect before taking the leap.

Creative work is difficult enough, as is. Don’t make it more difficult by cluttering your mind at the start. Allow yourself time to breathe before setting off on your next pursuit.

It’s similar to tapering before a race. If you’re rested, you’ll be in better condition to handle the strenuous demands of the real race and guard yourself against burnout. In endurance sports, two days before a race, your metabolic fitness level is what it will be for the upcoming race. No matter how hard you train during those final 48 hours, you won’t see any benefits to your endurance in time for the race. Rest matters.

The value of tuning out

In 1902, Albert Einstein took a job at the Swiss patent office. The years he spent there could be considered the ultimate drawdown period. It was challenging enough to keep his mind engaged, but not enough to distract him from his more important focus on comprehending and redefining physics.

Three years later, Einstein published his paper, “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies,” which outlines the special theory of relativity. Its contributions to the field of physics were profound. But one of the most astonishing things about the paper was that it had exactly zero footnotes or citations. It was like he reached the conclusions through years of pure thought, without listening to outside opinion.

While Einstein is an extreme example and a profound abstract thinker, the underlying lesson holds true. For originality and creativity, sometimes you need to allow yourself to tune out.

“If you’re constantly exposed to other people’s ideas, it can be tough to think up your own.”
— Jake Knapp + John Zeratsky

Deliberate or impulsive?

Drawdown periods aren’t an excuse to avoid getting started. You’re never going to be as prepared as you might like. Drawdown periods are more about giving yourself a moment of calm before the grind of creating something from nothing. New startups, books, and theories can take years, if not decades, to develop.

The difference between great artists, entrepreneurs, and scientists is the difference between drawdown periods and procrastination. Drawdown periods are deliberate. Procrastination is impulsive.

At a certain point, it helps to limit exposure and turn things back to yourself. Allow yourself to mull ideas, forge connections on your own terms, and see what comes out of it. It’s impossible to find your own voice if you’re bombarding yourself with other people’s ideas without giving yourself time to breathe.

Drawdown periods offer a temporary refrain when you’re able to step back and see the terrain. This allows you a chance to appreciate the interconnected whole and create connections or bridge ideas that you might have otherwise missed. The more perspective you can build, the better you’ll be for it. And the same goes for your craft.

As a smart creative, drawdown periods are essential. Give yourself time to prepare, rest, and reflect before your next endeavor. You’ll need every ounce of energy you have if you want to get your thinking clean and bring the best version of an idea to life.

The Reality of Failing to Rise to the Occasion

What you don’t see when you look at the synopsis of great people’s lives are the times they fell short. From the outside, it looks like they operated with invincibility, rising up at each pivotal moment. When the stakes were at their highest, there was no stumble.

But when you dig into the details, there’s no one who has actually achieved this. Top performers assume more risk than others. They’re on the frontier, operating at the edge of their current abilities. If anything, this means failure is even more prevalent.

Failing to rise to the occasion

The truth is, there will be moments when you fail to rise to the occasion. You’re not always going to make the right decisions or act exactly how you imagined. And since perfection is impossible, what matters most is the ability to bounce back.

Even Warren Buffett had moments when he failed to follow through early in his life. At the beginning of his career, Buffett was terrified of public speaking. And while you might imagine that someone like Buffett stepped up, put himself through deliberate practice, and overcame the fear in one fell swoop — reality was much different.

In a widely-told story, at the beginning of his career, Buffett enrolled in a Dale Carnegie speaking course to improve his skills. But few sources include the fact that he quit the first time around. He was afraid of being called upon to speak so he dropped out of the class. It was only the second time around that he built the courage to follow through. Now Buffett credits this as the best $100 investment he’s ever made.

The ability to bounce back

Anyone can lecture you about decisions you should make, habits you should build, systems you should create. But the most successful people aren’t flawless in their decision making. They just have a remarkable ability to bounce back.

The greatest artists, entrepreneurs, and scientists take the misfortune in stride, turning obstacles on their end and using them as an opportunity to improve their craft. They embrace mistakes and capitalize on them, ensuring they never happen again. And that’s the real difference in top performers — they stumble, but they rarely repeat mistakes.

Whether you’re struggling against your internal limits — uncertainty, doubt, fear — or you’re facing external challenges, you’re going to have bad days. What matters is the ability to reflect, learn, and find the courage to start fresh the next day.

Awareness can go a long way when it comes to navigating failure and being kinder to yourself. It’s okay to hold yourself to your own high expectations, but expecting perfection will often lead you over the edge. Life is as much about resourcefulness and how you respond to challenging situations as it is carefully plotting a long-term strategy. You need both.

Professionals know this space well and embrace mistakes as learning cues. They learn from them, but they don’t obsess over them. Amateurs expect perfection and crumble when they fail to meet their own lofty expectations.

Failure is about reach

The goal is never failure itself. It’s the expansion of your reach and the rate of personal growth. That means pursuing opportunities where failure is a potential outcome. Not limiting yourself to situations where success and participation trophies are guaranteed outcomes.

If you’re willing to risk failure, you’ll take more chances and reach further beyond your current ability level. And this is the fastest way to learn and create more opportunities for accelerated growth. Take calculated risks.

There will be times that you surprise yourself. But there will also be times you fail to rise to the occasion. In those moments, what matters is your resilience and resourcefulness. The lean product mindset applies as well here as anywhere else. Build, measure, learn. Repeat.

Lessons from an Introvert: How to Push Your Limits and Overcome Uncertainty

If you want to achieve any sort of growth in life, you’re going to have to put yourself in uncomfortable situations. Experimentation is the fastest path towards experiences that allow you to learn, develop, and push your limits. Whether new skills, tactics, or techniques – growth comes from change.

But it’s easier said than done, especially for introverts. My perfect day is designed around routine, which helps build discipline and focus. I reserve high productivity times of the day for reading, writing, and creating. Although it’s challenging work, it’s a familiar challenge. It doesn’t generate the same type of discomfort for me as something like public speaking or learning a new skill.

If I’m not careful, it’s easy for me to settle into my comfort zone and ignore uncomfortable opportunities for growth that fall outside of my norm. I have a tendency to take discipline past the golden mean and become too rigid, losing flexibility in my day-to-day. To combat this, I have to disrupt my routine on occasion to make sure I’m still focused on the right things and challenging myself in new ways.

A few weeks ago, after months of deliberation, I shadowed an acting class. I wasn’t sure what to expect–it took everything in me just to show up. I have no desire to be an actor and there’s no hidden talent buried within me. In fact, the thought of acting makes me want to curl up and die. So what was I doing there?

My primary motivation was using it as an experiment to improve my public speaking skills. I came across the idea over coffee with a friend and fellow writer, Lily Hansen. She told me how her background in acting helped improve her stage presence and presentation skills. It was an interesting angle that I thought worth testing out.

The fact remained, I was nervous and in no way looking forward to the class. But I followed through because it aligned with an area of my life that I wanted to improve. The acting class was a vote for my desired identity – not as an actor, but as a stronger communicator and storyteller. I looked at it as an opportunity to arm myself with techniques to build greater comfort presenting in front of an audience.

Everyone’s different, but as an introvert, the question remains – when the stakes are at their highest, how do you take the leap and overcome uncertainty? This is how I’ve learned to navigate that anxiety.

Escaping the narrative

It’s important to know your tendencies. Understanding introversion and extroversion is an important part of self-discovery and awareness. It can help you discover where you gain energy and where your limits are. If you know which way you lean, you’ll know yourself better – when to push and when to ease off.

But keep in mind, it’s a spectrum. There’s a difference between awareness and over-identifying. Humans are incredibly complex. Neatly defined categories are only enticing because they’re easy and allow you to avoid navigating the gray area that defines most of life.

Don’t lock yourself into some narrative you can’t escape. Otherwise, it becomes an excuse to avoid uncomfortable situations. The same goes for extroversion–discomfort means different things to different people. If you want to avoid it, you can find plenty of familiar excuses within your comfort zone.

The power of ”who cares?”

Once you’ve escaped the narrative, it’s about taking the leap. Whether a presentation, high-stakes situation, or looking ridiculous when you’re learning a new skill, how do you take the first step?

When Shaun White, legendary snowboarder and three-time Olympic gold medalist, is at the top of an important run, the last thing he tells himself before he goes off is “who cares.” He doesn’t psych himself up or blast Eminem. He knows he’s put in the preparation. At that point, what happens, happens.

You don’t take new risks or perform your best by fueling your nerves. The who cares mindset isn’t about apathy, it’s about a state of relaxed concentration. This is where you do your best work. It’s a strangely empowering self-talk that helps navigate fears of judgment, failure, or general anxiety about drawing attention to yourself.

When I’m about to do something new or uncomfortable, this mindset provides a moment of calm before the storm. I know I’ll probably look like an idiot (the acting class), but if there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that most people are too preoccupied with themselves to remember you tomorrow. You’re the only one still thinking about it.

Swim lessons and my life’s finest moments

At twenty-two, after graduating college, I decided to take swim lessons to learn proper technique. I was just getting into triathlons, which necessitate swimming with efficiency unless you want to smuggle in water wings. So I signed up for a month of private lessons at the Vanderbilt aquatics center.

I was prepared to look like a dumbass, but it surpassed even my expectations. The aquatics staff was so accustomed to elementary children signing up for these lessons that they ignored the form I filled out. To their surprise, a grown man, fifteen years older than every other person in the pool, wandered in for lessons.

With seven-year-olds in the lanes to either side, I started my lessons. The instructor (also younger than me) had to come up with a plan on the fly – diving for pool rings in the deep end wasn’t going to cut it. To make matters worse, I couldn’t make it down and back without flailing for air. Overall, these were some of the finest moments of my life.

But the who cares mindset helped me get over my ego and commit to learning proper technique. I looked like a complete noob for the first week, and I was. But with practice and time, I improved. Eight years later, I’m still swimming every week.

I reminded myself of this experience in my anticipation leading up to the acting class. Many of life’s most rewarding experiences happen once you let go of your fear of looking like an idiot. Don’t let your ego hold you back. These people aren’t going to remember you. Show up eager to learn and follow through on what you came to do.

Handling nerves in the moment

Almost always, I find that once I jump off and settle in, my nerves calm. But there are still moments when I get nervous in the middle of a challenging situation or new experience. When that happens, instead of amplifying my focus on myself and fueling my nerves, I shift my attention to externals.

In presentations or high-profile meetings, for example, I focus on non-verbals in the audience or the talking points of other people in the room. This helps keep me from spiraling or thinking ten lines ahead. By focusing outside of myself, I’m able to bring my attention back to the room, settle into the moment, and trust myself.

The All Blacks, New Zealand’s most successful rugby team, have a similar technique they use to bring themselves back to the match and avoid allowing the magnitude of the moment to overcome them. They use breathing techniques to put themselves in a clear, calm state. Then they anchor that state to a specific physical action – scrunching their toes, stamping their feet, or throwing water over their heads. This helps bring them back to the situation at hand and a relaxed state of concentration.

If you get too far ahead in what you’re trying to say or do, you’ll only compound the issue. Instead, come back to now. Project and focus more of your attention outside of yourself. It might be the opposite of your initial instinct to turn within, but it’s far more effective.

Jump when others retreat

If you want to become the best version of yourself, you’re going to have to put yourself out there. Growth comes from pushing your limits, experimenting with different approaches, and learning new skills. The greater tolerance you build for discomfort, the further the reaches of your comfort zone will extend. But this is a lifelong effort.

If you build self-awareness and maintain perspective leading up to, and during, the moment, you’ll be well on your way. Avoid over-identifying, be willing to look like an idiot, and avoid projecting too far into the future. This is how you get out of your own head, take risks, and jump when others retreat to familiar surroundings. It’s here where some of life's most valuable experiences are found.

The Two Sides of Discomfort

Last week, after months of deliberation, I shadowed an acting class. I wasn’t sure what to expect–it took everything in me just to show up. I have no desire to be an actor and there’s no hidden talent buried within me. In fact, the thought of acting makes me want to curl up and die. So what the hell was I doing there?

For those committed to personal growth, discomfort is considered a positive. And it often is. But discomfort can signal different things.

Sometimes discomfort is a sign that you’re growing and pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone or current abilities. Other times it acts an alert, warning you of a misguided decision.

The same concept holds true for exercise. There’s a discomfort that you push through to build strength or endurance. But there’s also a discomfort that signals injury. If you attempt to push through the latter, you compound the mistake and end up worse for it. While exercise is based more on feeling and experience, personal growth shares similar elements.

A certain level of stress is important. As Nassim Taleb, philosopher and writer, explains in his book Antifragile, “Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty.” The key is finding the right threshold.

Wind extinguishes a candle and energizes fire. Likewise with randomness, uncertainty, chaos: you want to use them, not hide from them. You want to be the fire and wish for the wind.
— Nassim Taleb

What’s worth sticking out?

Whenever I’m in an uncomfortable situation, I apply the same rule of thumb that I use to evaluate whether or not something is worth quitting.

I start by asking myself, “Do I feel nervous or uncomfortable because this is difficult? Or do I feel nervous because something’s off and this contradicts my character, values, or principles?”

The former is worth sticking out because that’s where personal growth stems from. The latter means it’s probably time to bow out and reassess.

With the acting class, my primary motivation was using it as an experiment to improve my public speaking skills. I came across the idea over coffee with a friend and fellow writer, Lily Hansen. She told me how her background in acting helped improve her stage presence and presentation skills. It was an interesting angle that I thought worth testing out.

But the fact remained, I was nervous and in no way looking forward to the class. It took a disproportionate amount of energy to even schedule it. But I followed through because it aligned with an area of my life that I wanted to improve.

Another way of looking at this is by using a model James Clear suggests, and asking yourself, “Does this behavior help me become the type of person I wish to be? Does this habit cast a vote for or against my desired identity?”

The acting class was a vote for my desired identity, not as an actor, but as a stronger communicator and storyteller. I looked at it as an opportunity to arm myself with techniques to build greater comfort presenting in front of an audience.

Does this behavior help me become the type of person I wish to be? Does this habit cast a vote for or against my desired identity?
— James Clear

The nuance of discomfort

There’s also a nuance to discomfort that’s worth taking into account. As circumstances change, the type of discomfort can shift beneath you. Earlier this year, a few technology companies reached out about open positions. I went through with the interviews–nerves and all–because I knew they would help me hone my skills, clean up my thinking, and explore my options.

But when it came to an offer, it was a different type of discomfort. I was able to step back and identify that my hesitation was because it didn’t line up with my priorities for the immediate future. I was still more excited about my current team, our upcoming challenges, and what we were building.

In that context, the decision to leave such a positive situation seemed foolish. I didn’t want to jump at the first new opportunity I came across, I wanted the right opportunity. And that meant doubling down on my current position.

The difficult part is that you have to preserve a deep sense of awareness to avoid rationalizing decisions beyond all recognition. There will be moments when you fail to rise to the occasion. Your natural instinct will be to seek out evidence to affirm you made the right decision–confirmation bias.

But life is rarely as neat and orderly as you might hope. You won’t always know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you made the right or wrong decision. You just have to assess things to the best of your ability and learn along the way. With greater awareness of your cognitive biases and what discomfort means in different contexts, you’ll be able to make better decisions.

Growth and self-preservation

If you take an impulse at face value, you’ll never be able to differentiate between the shades of discomfort. Consider what side of the spectrum the discomfort you’re facing falls on. One leads towards growth and the other self-preservation.

There will be moments when you’re uncomfortable. That’s not always a bad thing. The vast majority of us would be better off with more adventure, discomfort, and randomness in our lives. But you have to know the difference between stupid risks and opportunities for growth.

If it aligns with your character, it’s worth pushing through those difficult moments when you feel like quitting. No matter how uncomfortable you might be. It’s the discomfort from situations that contradict your character or priorities that deserve a second look.